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Metallica’s 80’s Singles: The Visual Guide

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“They’re all about me, not about dudes riding on horses, wielding sabers,” says James Hetfield in Mick Wall’s Exit Light: A Biography of Metallica. Here, he’s speaking on the band’s fascination with punk, Discharge and the Anti Nowhere League, a dynamic highlighted by their cover choices, liberal sporting of the Misfits logo and a working partnership with the crown prince of hardcore illustration: Pushead.

Hetfield’s words convey one of Metallica’s many caveats, an asterisk which belies their mono-metal moniker to showcase an obsession with “extra-metal” [feels like: extramarital] stylistic diversions. All told, a quick peek through their early singles collection reveals a glorious visual and auditory trove of proto capital M-etal posturing from a bygone era, and in the the big aesthetic picture, we can trace the trajectory of full-blooded 80’s thrash metal paintings giving way to the confused esoterica of a 90’s “Alternica” phase. The evolution’s present in the music as too, with a lyrical arc that profiles poser killing in the streets decades vague action hero anthems penned for the Mission Impossible II Soundtrack.

Perhaps Metallica secured their highest echelons of fame by sidestepping the tropes of their big 4 peers: Slayer’s Satanism, Megadeth’s constant politicking and Anthrax’s moshable chicanery. We can certainly point fingers, blame them for spoiling a once proud visual legacy with cowboy-pirate goofballing, bloody jizz and that godawful Ninja Star design, but that’s neither here nor there. Metallica is, and always will be in our blackened hearts and we’ll always have the early records to reference, pore over and bang our heads to. Here’s the 80’s Metallica’s visual journey, as told through their singles collection.

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Whiplash 1983

Whiplash is the only 80’s Metallica release (sans the $5.98 EP) to feature any band photography on the cover. Here, we’re treated to a “27-years-before-straight edge” James Hetfield in a Smirnoff tee as seen through those drunk goggles D.A.R.E cops brought to your middle school. Beneath that, lettering culled straight from a Commodore 64 font book or a “self-aware computers” shlock flick.

It’s stark and simple, hardly indicative of the band’s forthcoming visual vocabulary, but then again, so is the source material. Let’s not forget “Whiplash” was pulled from an album initially titled Metal Up Your Ass and the band, having undergone serious lineup changes, were still treading their yankee-fied version of the NWOBHM as an opening act on the club circuit.

The A-side delivers their definitive ode to noggin-bashing, with the B-side features a selection of forgettable “live” tracks. I’d be remiss not to mention that Motorhead’s sole grammy credit goes for covering the this single, and though it’s nowhere near as big an upset as the Jethro Tull incident, but still batshit to me.

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Jump in the Fire 1983

It’s long been postulated that Metallica’s pre-eminent marketing triumph was staying away from overtly Satanic aesthetics. Of course, Megadeth would adopt this principle later in their career, but for entirely different reasons.

In that regard though, “Jump in the Fire,” with snaky riff and almost-falsetto vocals, reveals an embryonic Metallica that’s had the song in their catalog since the McGoveny era. Yes, they actually did have a song about the devil, or at least some kind of fire-dwelling demon. Jump in the Fire sports a “What you see is what you get” kinda cover here with a horned monster roaring into an inferno. While it could’ve been copied directly from a Dungeons and Dragons manual, conventional wisdom suggests it’s actually inspired by the demon from Graham Masterson’s 1978 novel, The Devils of D-day. At one time, trinket seekers with 99 extra bucks could actually own this dude as a tangible action figure right from the Metallica web store, but must now “Jump in the EBay” to do it.

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Creeping Death 1984

Good Metallica art or best Metallica art? You decide, but any real fan who’s not making this top 5 probably needs brain surgery. Alvin Petty, the artist behind Heathen’s Victims of Deception, painted the scene and according to the internet, caught Kirk Hammetts attention with it while the latter was visiting the former’s house. Thinking it’d go perfect in the discog, the record label simply slapped the Metallica logo overtop those mountains with a plastic layover.

Though the A-side itself is about the plagues of Egypt, were I not privy to a lyric sheet, I’d assume this single were a photolisting from Skeletor’s realtor or the concept art for this Mighty Max playset. A color palate lifted from the 80’s thrash playbook, a phenomenal revision on the iconic logo, misty mountains and a skull. I ask you, what more could be added here? You don’t like those colors? A french label accidentally mis-printed the parent LP Ride the Lightning green, rendering it a collector’s item, and it’d look just as pretty hanging on a wall. I say we get the folks at MacFarlane to roll these out as plastic playsets because my $99 Jump in the Fire dude needs his own mountain fortress and I don’t have $8,000 on hand to purchase the original painting.

B-side features the (now) standard “Am I Evil?” and the best recorded version of “Blitzkrieg” in existence. Yes, including the original.

NOTE: Master of Puppets did have a single, but it didn’t have a cover.

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Harvester of Sorrow1988

Enter Pushead, the fanzine columnist/graphic artist/hardcore legend who’d re-invent the stipple game and visually define a few distinct periods of Metallica. Some were incredible, some were St. Anger-y, but were all distinctly Pushead.

Justice, as well as “fist smashing through something” and “descending into madness” themes all running wild here. Astute heads will peep that “Language of the Mad” back graphic and probably think “woah, that looks like a late 80’s hardcore single.” Harvester was the first single to promote …And Justice For All, and Metallica actually debuted it being the hardest band on the 1988 Monster of Rock tour alongside Van Hagar, Scorpions, Dokken and Kingdom Come.

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Eye of the Beholder1988

Here’s a unique skull-less Pushead art that reminds me of his other underrated classic, the In My Eyes Difference Between cover. It’s the kind of cover Pushead could pull on any 2-bit jackass interviewer with the “so bro, do you draw anything besides skulls?” leadoff. Here’s where those little shreds of “social consciousness” began creeping into Metallica’s lyrical well, and in that vein, the scattered newspaper headlines, flanked by one giant eyeball, lend a nice dose of Orweillian topicality to a singles collection that (to this point) has been mostly predicated on metal cliches.

“Eye of the Beholder” hasn’t been performed in it’s entirety since 1989, but they’ve been piecing a sizeable section of their live “Justice” medleys from it. The B-Side is the Budgie standard “Breadfan,” a track which introduced me to this phenomenal Welsh band and introduced the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the riff they’d end up pillaging for “All Around the World.”

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One 1988

Here it is. The track that broke them to the masses, AKA thrash metal gets a music video AKA Jethro Tull’s Crest of Knave “out metals” this one. It’s also the track that got them onto Beavis and Butthead and subsequently into this writer’s consciousness.

Here’s we’ve got “traditional” Pushead art a’la a snaggletoothed skull wrapped in parchment, the very same that’d be adorning all Metallica shirt graphics for their forthcoming “tour our damn dicks off” era (and this video cassette). B-side features Diamond Head’s “The Prince,” 1/8 of the 50% of Lightning to the Nations they’d end up covering during their career.

What more can be said about One that some hairbrained MTV special hasn’t already tried to? Korn covered it once and in response to many a hesher’s dream, is a playable title on one of the Guitar Hero games.

Stay tuned for part 2, the 90’s guide to Metallica singles, where designs get a little more dicey combining “modern art,” cuban pimp suits and a thousand variations on “none more black.”

—Dylan Chadwick

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